May 10, 2015

Is #BlackLivesMatter the Next Civil Rights Movement?

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...
Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I need to begin this post with a disclaimer in order to help the reader put what I am about to say in context. I was not involved in any of the bus boycotts, lunch counter protests, or desegregation drives throughout the South. I was not a freedom rider, and I was not in Washington DC for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. I did not march from Selma to Montgomery, and I did not celebrate the passage of the Voting Rights Act. I did not do any of these things because I had not yet been born. I mention this because my knowledge of these events comes only from history and includes whatever gaps and distortions that might entail.

With that out of the way, one of the things that has always stood out to me about the American civil rights movement of the 1960s was how well organized the activist efforts were in the early days. Activists were not just random people who showed up to a protest; they were trained in nonviolent resistance. They were prepared for what they were likely to face and coached in how to respond. It wasn't that they were all professional activists; it was that they were informed and their actions were well coordinated. And I daresay that this is a big part of why they were so effective.

I try to imagine what would have happened with some of the early protests if nobody had been trained or had bothered to alert the local media. I suspect more of the protestors would have been killed and much of what they accomplished would have taken much longer to happen. But they were trained, informed, and coordinated by effective leaders. I think it seems reasonable to assume that this had something to do with their success.

Some have suggested that we are in the midst of another civil rights movement today, one focusing on the manner in which predominately White police forces and the criminal justice system as a whole has been treating Black Americans. I hope this is true. Big change in these areas is clearly needed. But if there is another movement out there, I have to wonder whether its success is limited by what looks like a lack of leadership, organization, training, and coordination. I realize I'm on the outside looking in, but I'm not sure that what we have today is the movement from which we should expect success just yet.

If there is a new civil rights movement, where are the leaders? Who is giving this a recognizable face? I know there are some aging celebrity activists who get themselves in front of the cameras from time-to-time, but I don't see the youth taking them too seriously. Where are the coordinated efforts to inform, mobilize, and train the activists? Yes, I see a lot of kids using the #blacklivesmatter hashtag on Twitter. I suppose that might be better than doing nothing, but doesn't its success depend on whether it motivates people to do something else? What is the something else at which it is aimed? I mean, hashtag activism alone isn't going to solve these problems, is it?

There have certainly been some protests. They spark up predictably following each new atrocity and fade from the public eye soon after. Would leadership and coordination make them more memorable? Might the lack of training and coordination of those who show up at them have something to do with some of the unfortunate behavior our corporate news media keeps showing us? I'm not saying they aren't responsible for their shitty coverage, but training the protestors might have helped make it harder for them to do it.

Maybe what I'm looking for here is dated and unrealistic. What is happening today is happening on a much larger scale than what happened in the early 1960s. Maybe that means that their model is simply too cumbersome to apply today. And while it does seem like leadership and coordination would be helpful, I wonder if today's movement is too divided to allow leaders to emerge. Maybe atheist activism is the only sort that repeatedly shoots itself in the foot over divisive conflict. And I'll certainly admit that I've not always had the easiest time determining whether some of what I see online represents genuinely committed activism or thinly-veiled attempts at self-promotion.

I hope that what I'm not seeing (e.g., effective leadership, organization, training) is out there and I'm just missing it because I'm too old, too tired, and/or too hopelessly out of touch to get it. Or maybe I'm just wrong about the whole thing and the effective activism of today will look nothing like it did in the 1960s. But I have a sneaking suspicion that much of what is happening today hasn't been terribly effective just yet, except of course for those trying to merchandise the struggle.
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